I’ve received emails and read many a tweet and Facebook post from gleeful atheists about this study. I can’t really blame them for their excitement, for we are continually confronted with assertions from believers that we just aren’t very moral without religion or that we our default disposition is “sad sack”; for example, Friday’s Real Time with Bill Maher left me furious, when Maher let Republican, Jillian Melchior get away with asserting that suicide is on the rise in America because America is “losing their religion.” Bill had only reply with one word to shut down such poor reasoning, “Scandinavia”, but he let it go. This allowed further speculation about “community” and all the stuff we poor unbelievers seem to lack.
But, as atheists, we should be aware of our own biases and treat findings outlined in this report with the same skepticism we apply to other scientific outcomes. Happily, Jerry Coyne has completed a thorough analysis of the report so I don’t have to go through it bit by bit and I think the most important take away is Jerry’s quote from sociologist and paleontologist, Gregory Paul:
Whether or not the paper’s methods and immediate results are reasonably sound, the conclusion the authors come to is overdrawn. The paper finishes by firmly saying that secularization of moral discourse will increase human kindness. That’s a reasonable hypothesis, but it is not yet demonstrated science. The paper should have concluded by stating that the results indicate that fears that secularization will degrade altruism are contradicted by the study, and that secularization MAY instead increase ethical behavior. Had I reviewed the paper I would have insisted on that change.
In other words, it is more accurate to conclude that you can be good without religion and you may even be “more good”.